The brief but dramatic campaign of Herman Cain ended on Saturday, when the little-known businessman who captivated the Republican race said the relentless attention on accusations of his sexual misconduct had become too much to bear.

Both defiant and passionate, Cain again denied allegations of sexual harassment and an extramarital affair, while declaring, “I’m not going away.”

But, he said, after “a lot of prayer and soul searching I am suspending my presidential campaign because of the continued distraction, the continued hurt caused on me and my family.” Cain also cited difficulty in raising enough money to remain competitive.

Cain’s decision is the latest twist in a Republican primary contest that has been marked by a search for a conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, the establishment favorite.

After a string of impressive debate performances, Cain assumed that role in late September. But amid mounting allegations and a series of gaffes, much of his support has shifted in recent weeks to former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who has joined Romney atop the polls.

The question now is where the rest of Cain’s backing goes. Asked in an interview in Iowa last week if he would pick up Cain’s supporters, Gingrich responded: “Oh, sure.”

The Gingrich campaign moved quickly to appeal to Cain supporters on Saturday, praising his ideas immediately after he announced the suspension of his campaign. Gingrich himself lauded Cain a short while later at a Staten Island event, saying that he “deserves credit for having the courage to talk about big ideas and focus on the economy.”

But there is also evidence that Romney could benefit from Cain’s departure. A Pew poll conducted before Thanksgiving showed that Cain supporters split evenly between the former Massachusetts governor and Gingrich when asked for their second choice.

Romney said during a campaign event in New Hampshire on Saturday that he hopes Cain backers “give us a good, careful look. . . . I hope, as they evaluate the various candidates, they will find I’m the leader the world needs.”

A spokeswoman for Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), who enjoyed a brief moment atop the polls in the summer, said Cain’s campaign had been in touch with the congresswoman. “We have received numerous calls and e-mails from his supporters, and we are are happy to have them,” Alice Stewart said.

Cain gave no indication on Saturday who was his second choice for president, but he said he will endorse one of his former rivals “in the near future.”

An unlikely candidate

In a Republican nominating contest that has see-sawed from one frontrunner to another, Cain, 65, was perhaps the unlikeliest to rise to the top of the pack. A former pizza executive with no political experience, little campaign organization to speak of and a schedule tailored more to selling books than winning votes, Cain nevertheless captured the hearts of Republican voters with a clear message, confidently delivered.

“I’m upset. I feel like the other side won, their dirty tricks,” said Marelli Gardner, a health-care coordinator and tea party activist from Cummings, Ga., who drove 45 minutes and waited two hours to hear Cain speak on Saturday. She left before his remarks were over. “A lot of people had a lot of hope in Herman Cain.”

At his rally Saturday, Cain said, “I have made many mistakes in life, everybody has.” But he also offered his story as evidence of the nation’s strengths.

“I grew up in a world of segregated water fountains,” he said. “My father was a chauffeur and my mother was a maid. We showed that you didn’t have to have a degree from Harvard in order to run for president. We showed that you didn’t have to have a political pedigree. . . . I am proof that a common man could lead this nation.”

In a field of politicians and Washington insiders, Cain presented himself as the businessman outsider with “bold new ideas.” While Romney had a 59-point economic plan and a 160-page book to explain it, Cain said the nation’s ills could be fixed with three simple numbers — 9, 9 and 9.

Cain talked so incessantly about his “9-9-9” tax plan — which would have scrapped the current tax code and replaced it with a 9 percent tax on individuals, a 9 percent tax on businesses and a 9 percent sales tax — that it became both a punch line and a selling point.

On the campaign trail, Cain attracted large crowds who were drawn to his straightforward style, folksy sayings (“Awwww shucky ducky now!”) and affability. More than once, he delighted crowds by breaking into song. Released in the midst of his presidential run, his latest book — “This Is Herman Cain!” — became a bestseller.

Cain also embraced his role as the first African American to rise to the top tier of a Republican nominating contest. When asked whether he was the flavor of the week for Republican voters, Cain told Jay Leno to call him “Haagen-Dazs Black Walnut” because “it tastes good all the time.” And he used his up-by-my-bootstraps story of growing up poor and black in Atlanta to connect with voters and extol American values.

Accusations and gaffes

But for the past month, Cain has held on as an embattled candidate, denying accusations that he had sexually harassed several women when he headed the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s.

On Monday, Atlanta businesswoman Ginger White alleged that she and Cain had carried on a 13-year affair. Cain acknowledged a friendship with White and said he had been helping her financially, but insisted it was not sexual.

The former Godfather’s chief executive has fiercely denied all of the accusations, and said to his supporters on Saturday that “one of the first declarations I want to make with you today is that I am at peace with my God. I am at peace with my wife. And she is at peace with me.”

Cain’s small campaign staff proved unable to effectively respond to the allegations, with Cain often contradicting himself or his advisers.

Scott Plakon, a Florida state legislator and co-chair of Cain’s campaign in the state, said he had never seen a campaign so full of ups and downs. For the past month, he watched the downward slide.

“It got beyond them,” Plakon said of Cain’s small staff. “He had to run one type of campaign when he was at 5 percent in the polls, but when you start getting attacked there is another skill set that’s needed and they just didn’t have that.”

Cain didn’t help his cause by making a series of gaffes that showed his limited grasp of many issues, particularly foreign policy.

Cain’s announcement that he is suspending, rather than terminating, his campaign appears to give him greater flexibility in the months ahead to transfer leftover funds to a candidate or political committee of his choice. “Suspension” has no legal meaning under Federal Election Commission rules, meaning Cain could continue to raise contributions and spend money until declaring a formal end to the campaign.

Plan B, as Cain put it, will be an organization that will allow him to “continue to be a voice for the people” and promote his tax plan. As of Saturday, it consisted of a single webpage — — where supporters could submit their e-mail addresses and await more information.

Cain had said earlier in the week he planned to stay in the race, but he was aware that the allegations were hurting his family. He traveled to Atlanta Friday for his first face-to-face meeting with his wife Gloria since White alleged the affair.

Cain and his wife gathered with about 10 of his most ardent supporters Saturday morning to relay his decision. Gloria Cain sat quietly, listening intently to her husband as he said suspending the campaign would “liberate” him and stop the news media from airing the accusations against him.

“Contrary to what the scandalous, nameless, faceless character assassins intended to do, Mr. Cain is not going away anytime soon,” said Niger Innis, a campaign adviser who was in the smaller meeting. “I think he did not want to leave the race. He came to the conclusion that he just could not put his family through the attacks.”

Somashekhar reported from Atlanta and Thompson reported from Washington. Staff writers Chris Cillizza and Dan Eggen also contributed from Washington to this report.